Writing as a Process
by Terry Heick
Writing is arduous, difficult work.
Even for those who have chosen writing as a profession, the muse often fails to show, and the writer is left with only the process to get by.
Planning, writing, rethinking, revising, sharing, rewriting, editing, sharing, and reviewing–and perhaps revising some more before taking a deep breath and finally making it public.
The writing process is rivaled only by the scientific method in its stringent and clinical demands. For growing writers, this kind of mechanized approach is juxtaposed with the perception of creative processes as artistic, elegant, and inspired fun.
While writing can absolutely be fun, for novice writers who may not be compelled to write the way established writers more sure of their craft can be, the writing process can be a monster to internalize and difficult to trust.
But probably the most significant challenge to young writers is not the writing process itself, but rather one step before the process itself: the cause to write.
Young writers can–erroneously–believe they have nothing to say, often due to the formality of the writing process itself. They want to communicate, but the writing process can seem a bit…much.
So it’s no surprise that the five-step process does not come naturally for most learners. So much writing in school is, at its core, academic. Even when the writing is more personal in nature, it is done in journal or diary format–closed-circuit, closed-course, and teacher-centered no matter the design hoping otherwise. It is initiated by the teacher, cultivated by the teacher, peers, and writer themselves, usually at the teacher’s behest, evaluated by ‘helpful’ but sometimes confusing rubrics (also created by teachers), and is thus often more important to the teacher than the learners.
In this style of teaching, formal learning processes like those in schools reveal more than they produce–that is, they become a place where learners discover not how to write but rather whether or not they are strong writers, often in fatalistic or self-defeatist tones (each of which reveals themselves as disinterest and apathy).
Demystifying the Writing Process
Anytime then the writing process can be demystified by learners is critical. While there are ways blogging and social media can encourage this process, perhaps none are more powerful–or more simple–than modeling.
In the gradual release of responsibility model–show me, help me, let me–modeling is the first step. This age-old tradition of “here, let me show you” can resonate for learners in any number of scenarios, often by the visible expression of expertise. The implication is that there is a certain process or form to adhere to, and by showing it, learners can pick it up.
By modeling the writing process, a teacher can demonstrate what writing looks like–in all of its uncut, unedited, imperfect glory. This can be done with a number of tech tools, from online word processing suites like Google Docs, to social media platforms like Instagram or even twitter via #hashtags.
Live Modeling: Demonstrating the Reality of the Writing Process
This couldn’t be more simple: Model the writing process live so that students can see your inputs and hear your thinking aloud.
What bits of the writing process you’re modeling is up to you. You can start with a blank document and write from a single topic, or revise a given piece of your own writing created beforehand. Whatever you do, the idea is to demonstrate the process live. Seeing the birth of ideas–taking thoughts and documenting them with structures like sentences and paragraphs–can be a magical experience, especially for struggling writers who are often asked to write–and given rubrics, feedback, and peer collaborators, but rarely shown how.
Grade Levels: 3-12+
Duration: 15 minutes
Content Areas: All
Materials Necessary: A word processor and a projector (or even a document scanner and a pencil-and-paper) are really all that is required to get started. On the projector, where students can see, bring up a blank document–or even one with basic pre-writing–and when the learners are grouped, settled, and clear about expectations, you can get started.
This could also be done via a video stream or some other way where students can see you writing live and can ask questions–or you can stop the process and ask them questions.
1. Group the students
How you group students for this short activity depends on your classroom management style, the age group, and what grouping strategies they’re accustomed to.
One possibility is to cluster learners into small groups of 5 or fewer and assign each group something different to ‘watch for,’ and have them create a very simple collaborative concept map as notes.
How often you make corrections–to language use, spelling, syntax, or structure.
How often you combine during drafting–sentences or paragraphs.
What kinds of issues make you stop your drafting, and which do you steamroll right through.
It is important not to ‘teacher up’ this activity. The big idea here is for the students to witness the writing process. Anything you place between them and the writing can be a barrier to them ‘getting it,’ even if you intend otherwise.
2. Pick the right topic
The right topic is going to be something you are familiar with (write what you know), but not something you’re so certain of that the writing is entirely effortless and fluid. If you’re nervous about “live writing” in front of your students, practice ahead of time using a topic other than the one you’re going to write about with them.
For it to be most helpful to growing writers, they need to see both expertise and natural uncertainty. This is where the learning happens, and what can make writing more approachable.
As you write, think aloud as if learners are genuinely interested in hearing your thinking–but also as if no one else is around. The thinking aloud isn’t a performance, it’s just a tool to increase transparency–to let the learners into your head. This is crucial to getting “live modeling” right. While some of your thinking will be made visual by what you type, how you revise, when the writing goes fast and when it goes slow, what’s going on “behind the scenes” is just as important.
If you’re using expository writing to teach the writing process (and remember, that is the goal here–using the genre to teach the process, not vice-versa), consider “talking through” the answers to questions such as the following:
- What are you thinking as you finish that introduction?
- Why do you go back and fix some errors while you write and not others?
- How do you decide when to start a new paragraph?
- How does the absence or presence of pre-writing impact the drafting?
- How are you using your own uncertainty to affect a certain tone in your writing?
- How do you keep an audience in mind as you write–how exactly?
- As you sketch out your conclusion, how are the introduction and the body impacting its design–i.e., what is the relationship between your introduction, your body, and your conclusion?
Don’t worry about the appearance of perfection. Be honest and thorough, and think of the goal: increasing the transparency of how the writing process works, not the abundance/scarcity of your own writing ability.
4. Be brief–then reflect
Using a journal entry or exit slip, ask the students to reflect on what they saw–maybe first on their own, then sharing out in the small groups they’re already in, then something again on an exit slip–perhaps single takeaway, a response to a question, or even an analogy or the creation of a metaphor that expresses how the writing process functioned, or what they might expect to see different with different writers and writing styles.
What You’re Modeling
In the end, by modeling the process of writing you can demystify it in terms of sequence and nuance, and make it artistic and entirely personal–and less mechanical as a result. And by thinking aloud as you model the process, you’re clarifying three important ideas:
1. The Mistakes
Both in scale and frequency, the mistakes made during the writing process are more important than what you get right. Each of these miniature “fails” exhibit for growing writers the inevitability of mistakes–and ultimately what’s possible when you lean on the process instead of some vague notion of “excellence.”
2. The Thinking
Careful thinking has a tone of uncertainty to it–not being quite sure about an idea, and using the process of writing to better understand what it is that you actually believe. Pre-writing can help set the need to write, while revision will always be there to go back and untangle the knots, and editing will help prep the presentation.
3. The Vulnerability
The inherent vulnerability of self-expression–and how the courage of publishing (often) can erase those fears.
The impact of this lesson will be both short and long-term. You should almost immediately see evidence from the modeling show in discussion or writing. Younger students may tend to “over-mimic” what they saw, while older high school and college students might initially express very little in terms of immediate effect. However, long-term, it is important for writers to be privy to the way others move through the thinking process, especially experts like teachers. The more direct that access is, the stronger the potential impact.
The writing process is not a “English-Language Arts” thing. It’s not a “Composition” thing. It’s a “thinking” thing, and should be modeled across content areas, but teachers from STEM to Arts & Humanities, or else risk seeming artificial, and losing crucial credibility with learners.
And technology can be used to broadcast, record, and curate thinking for a larger set of learners across content areas, grade levels, and even eLearning domains.
In part 2 of this 3-part series, we’ll look at how Online Word Processing suites like Google Docs can be used to further teach the writing process.
This article was originally written by Terry Heick for Edudemic Magazine.